Again our house is divided in North Carolina, and I’m conflicted. I was inspired last year by UNC Chapel Hill’s “Silent Sam” movement that successfully pushed for the renaming of Saunders Hall, once dedicated to a KKK leader. I consider Charlotte’s Bree Newsome a modern civil rights hero for bringing the Confederate flag down in Columbia.
But I was saddened by the vandalism in Raleigh’s Oakwood Cemetery, where “Not Heroes” and “Slavery” were spray painted across Confederate markers. It could have been my ancestor’s grave, because I am a descendant of both sides of the conflict, with family who fought for the union, and family who fought for the South.
My great-great-great-grandfather joined the 1st North Carolina Infantry in March of 1863 and died at Chancellorsville in his first and only charge. He was a farmer from Wilkes with likely as much belief in secession as soldiers in Vietnam and Iraq had in the domino theory or weapons of mass destruction, so I am proud of his service while ashamed of his cause.
More than 120,000 North Carolinians served in the Confederate army during the course of the war, nearly half by threat of conscription, and while they were on the wrong side of history, they couldn’t have all been evil.
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The first monument in North Carolina appeared in a cemetery with an inscription, “In Memory of the Confederate Dead,” steering clear of the Lost Cause. And modern Germany, where the swastika is illegal and schoolchildren visit concentration camps, is how Southerners should have treated past sins, remembering most the suffering of 330,000 North Carolina slaves.
“It is not certain that any monument ought to be built, on either side, to perpetuate the memories of our unnatural civil war,” wrote U.S. Senator Marion Butler in opposition to a confederate monument at the State Capitol. His fusion movement of Republicans and populists wanted money for schools instead.
But Ku Klux Klan terrorism and efforts by white supremacist Democrats to suppress the vote of freed slaves ultimately returned ex-confederates to power where history was written by the losing side. By the war’s centennial, more than a hundred monuments had been built in North Carolina to commemorate the struggle – only one of them to an African-American.
Though proud of my Confederate ancestors’ courage, I know they were defending a government of Southern aristocrats who quit America for the right to own slaves. Their battle flag was resurrected by 20th century villains to oppose civil rights. It didn’t appear in Wal-Mart parking lots last year because history buffs were marking the 150th anniversary of Fort Fisher, but because kids who barely passed social studies rallied around the emblem of Dylan Roof as a symbol of Southern pride.
From antebellum to New South the rich have long encouraged the prejudices of poor whites as a way to stir up votes against progressive change. Instead of blaming the kid in the rebel hat for the racism in our society, we should appeal to the better angels of our leaders.
The first Republican governor of North Carolina, William Woods Holden, was impeached and removed from office during Reconstruction, and the time has come for Gov. Pat McCrory and the party of Lincoln to finish his work.
The North Carolina General Assembly should pass a law removing Confederate imagery from state issued license plates and lift the ban so local communities can choose to move monuments to cemeteries. Then they should stiffen the punishment for vandalizing graveyards to prevent future incident.
Those who wish as I do to honor their heritage should visit Gettysburg and Shiloh and join a new Southern cause: protecting battlefields from shopping malls. But the war is over and our ancestors deserve to rest in peace.
Michael A. Cooper, Jr. is an attorney at the McElwee Firm in his hometown of North Wilkesboro.